Sugar wars
The culture of free trade versus the culture of anti-slavery in Britain and the British Caribbean, 1840–50
in The cultural construction of the British world
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This is the story of a culture war that pitted two mid-Victorian shibboleths against each other. By the 1840s, Britons prided themselves on their opposition to slavery, and were quickly coming to pride themselves no less on their commitment to free trade. Their insatiable appetite for sugar brought these peculiar British values into tension. Thanks to tariff protection, colonial sugar – “free” sugar after Emancipation in the British West Indies in 1833 – enjoyed a near monopoly on the British market. It lost that protection with the 1846 Sugar Duties Act, which opened the British market to Cuban and Brazilian sugar produced by slaves. Slave sugar poured into Britain while fresh slaves poured into Brazil and Cuba, and the British Caribbean fell into socio-economic turmoil. The plantocracy bitterly charged the imperial government of having abandoned not only them, but the freed slaves as well.

Rather than being a simple story of how free trade (and the British consumer) beat abolitionism (and the purported interests of former slaves), this is instead a story of how the free trade v. abolition struggle intersected with several other cultural struggles. One is the struggle between planters and sugar monoculture on the one hand and peasant proprietorship and West Indian freedmen on the other. Another is the struggle between planters' socio-economic paternalism and the Whig-liberal government's doctrinaire commitment to “liberating” the consumer. Yet another is a struggle fought out within metropolitan political ranks: one that pitted those who felt abolition could be reconciled with free trade through armed suppression of the slave trade against those who were committed to pacifism and free trade. These struggles ended in a broad stalemate. Free trade's victory over abolition was not as decisive as it might have first seemed. Rather, a balance emerged between them – the sort of uncomfortable truce that ended so many culture wars in the “Age of Equipoise.”


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